THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM – PART VIII -SECTION II
I. After chapter 38 focuses on the beginning of the conversion of Judah, chapter 39 switches back to Joseph and his time in Egypt, where he rises, falls and rises again. In chapter 39, he is presented as talented, blessed by God, and innocent, but then suffering for his gifts.
A. The first six verses describe Joseph's meteoric rise to honor and position.
1. As with Abraham
and Isaac before, the journey to Egypt is described as "going down"
to Egypt. See Gen. 12:20, 26:2. In this case, the literal
meaning is a descent in status, but there is also the moral idea of
descending from the family of God.
2. However, in this new place, he prospers. He is sold to Potiphar, the Pharaoh's seris, which would be a chief steward or a captain of the household guard. Potiphar likely saw his talents and upbringing and put him in charge of his household.
- The word
saris also often meant a eunuch, made so because the some of the saris
were in charge of Pharaoh's wives or harem. If such is the case
here, it may explain his wife's later actions, as well as the absence
of any mention of children.
3. Potiphar does not come off looking very good, for he seems to become rather lazy, concerning himself for nothing but food. In addition, he does not tell the Pharaoh about this talented young man. Sometimes God's blessings can make a person think less of God or others, which is one reason why God may not give them as much as seems best.
- There could
be a more positive connotation of food having a sacred meaning, as in
food used for ritual meals. In that case, Potiphar could have
been focusing more on the religious realm, now that he is no longer
burdened with worldly cares.
B. Joseph's gifts then lead to a trial, which he passes with great suffering.
1. The text begins
with noted Joseph's beauty, in similar words to that of Rachel one
generation earlier. See Gen. 29:17. That beauty also leads
to unnecessary conflicts.
wife longs for Joseph, possibly bored of her husband as an aging and
possibly increasing fat man. (She may have also been significantly
younger than Potiphar, who as a rich and powerful man could easily persuade
a family to let him have their daughter.) And so she tries to
persuade him to have relations with her.
3. Joseph justly refuses her, but with words that are more ambiguous than they should be.
a. It would be
far better simply to tell her that she should be loyal to her husband
and that adultery is inherently wrong.
Joseph explains why, for him, this particular act of adultery would
be wrong, insofar as it would be a betrayal of the man who had trusted
him so much. His statement is entirely accurate and does emphasize
why this particular act of adultery would be especially wrong.
However, by failing to defend marriage in general, he retreats somewhat.
He may think it more diplomatic, but his need to explain himself, and
the emphasis on Potiphar's weakness, probably encourages Potiphar's
wife even more. Often, it is more challenging, but in the end,
better, simply to state that an action is wrong than to give lengthy
explanations that may give someone the impression that they can satisfy
the concerns raised.
4. As a result, Potiphar's wife continues to pursue Joseph, resulting in the final encounter, which will lead to Joseph's imprisonment on false charges.
apparently does not realize the need to avoid tempting her by his presence.
Furthermore, he goes into the house at a time when she is alone there.
As with his brothers, Joseph, as talented as he is, tends to be over-confident,
not thinking about the effect of his actions and presence on others.
wife seizes him with greater passion and, when he leaves, has his cloak.
f. She then recounts the allegation to Potiphar, who is filled with anger. However, the fact that he does not have Joseph executed indicates that he was having doubts about his wife's allegations. He in fact has Joseph in the prison connected to his very house, indicating possibly an intent to continue using his service.
II. In prison, Joseph begins to rise again, both with his natural gifts and his inspiration from God.
A. God leads the
chief jailer to recognize Joseph's talents and probably his innocence.
And so, as before when Joseph was in favor, then treacherously stripped,
arrested and thrown down (into a well), and then raised in favor, here
the pattern is repeated. And here again the one in charge (the
chief jailer) puts Joseph in charge of everything and all goes well
B. But then the critical difference begins. Here the chief jailer (unlike Jacob or Potiphar) uses Joseph's talents well; there is thus no more plot against him due to jealousy.
1. At some time
after Joseph was imprisoned, the Pharaoh turns against his chief butler
(or cupbearer) and chief baker. It is not clear what exactly the
offense was that cause the Pharaoh's anger, but there seems to be
a connection between them, for they both deal in food and drink (and
in fact in bread and wine, as Melchizedek did.) It is possible
that the food they prepared caused disease, or even possibly that there
was an attempt at poisoning or other plot.
4. Joseph goes
out of his way to offer help, both in getting them to describe the problem
and in the dreams. He begins, here for the first time, plainly
to claim power from God.
C. The two dreams are related, but one reflects order and blessing and the other disorder and curses. Joseph is able, through both grace and reason to understand their meaning.
1. The butler both believes Joseph and seems eager to have the dream interpreted, for he goes first.
a. His dream
reflects order, nature and humans in harmony, a likely result of his
good conscience and/or the blessings of God . In it a vine and
three branches are budding and then soon in blossom. And from
them, the butler makes wine and serves it to the Pharaoh
reads the dream for him as one of being restored by the Pharaoh in three
days. Joseph uses the image of the Pharaoh raising his (the butler's
D. Joseph's interpretations
come true on the third day, which was the Pharaoh's birthday.
Among Jews, and most ancient peoples, personal birthdays were not celebrated,
although days of weddings and coronations usually were. The Jewish
celebrations focused on great events, such as the Exodus (Passover),
the glory of God and giving of the law on Mount Sinai (Feast of Weeks)
or the wandering in the desert (Feast of Booths.) See Lev. 23,
Duet. 16. But, to the Egyptians, the Pharaoh was a god from his
birth, and so the birthday was celebrated.
E. Joseph's interpretations combine reason and the gift of God, a model of devout life generally.
interpretation did use some reason. Thus, he read the ordered
dream and the eagerness of the butler to have the dream interpreted
as a sign of innocence, while he read the baker's reluctance and disordered
dream as a sign of guilt. He may have reported the results to
the chief steward, who may have had something to do with the final sentence,
acquittal for the butler and acquittal for the baker. In addition,
it made sense that the dreams would come true in three days, given that
that is when the Pharaoh's birthday was. See Leon Kaas, The
Beginning of Wisdom 559-61.
2. However, Joseph
could not possibly have had the certainty that he demonstrated without
God revealing the interpretation to him. Thus, God was guiding
him as well to arrive at the truth with certainty.
- The butler's forgetfulness contrasts dramatically with God's continual remembrance. Like the wife of Potiphar, there is a faithlessness, although not as severe as in that case.
III. The final rise of Joseph comes with his interpretation of the dream of the Pharaoh.
A. Chapter 41, and the next account, begins with Pharaoh's dreams, which he knows to form one single message.
1. The dreams
involve images that Egyptians would have been familiar with, cows and
grains, both fat and thin.
2. It appears
that this dream came to Pharaoh only once, but it was extremely powerful.
The description is at once very realistic in the setup, but bizarre
in the result, with the starved cattle eating the fat ones and the thin
ears of wheat eating the fat ones.
3. This narrative does not directly mention the fact that the thin cattle and ears of grain become no thicker, a fact that Pharaoh later adds. See Gen. 41:21, 24. In the dreams, the Pharaoh seemed to wake up right after the eating. Later reflection may have added that detail.
4. It would appear
that the Pharaoh's dream had a vividness that he had not experienced
recently or perhaps ever. For he is relieved to find that it is
not real, but still agitated. And the fact that, until this point
the butler has not been reminded of Joseph indicates that there has
been no such dream recently.
B. It is rather odd
that the Egyptian magicians and sages could not give any interpretation.
It is possible that they could not draw a connection, that they could
not agree, or that they knew the meaning (seven years of famine), but
could propose no solution. They were evidently not used to this
situation. About 1200 years later, Daniel would bail out the magicians
of Nebuchadnezzar, who threatened to execute them if no one could be
found to recount and interpret his dream about a statue made of gold,
silver, bronze, iron and clay. See Dan. 2.
C. At this point the butler speaks up to propose a resolution.
He begins by admitting his negligence, which shows some courage and
2. He then recounts
accurately what happened, with the obvious implication that the Pharaoh
should call upon Joseph.
- Before coming
to the Pharaoh, Joseph understandably changes clothes, but he also shaves
his beard. The Egyptians, very uncommonly for the Near East, considered
it fashionable to have clean shaven faces, which may have been a sign
of youth or of otherworldliness. In any case, Joseph up to this
point has apparently maintained a certain distance from this practice,
but here joins in fully, perhaps indicating a certain full joining in
- It may be that
the Pharaoh has heard of Joseph's abilities. It may also be
that he does not trust his own people, or at least does not want to
give any one of them power. Joseph, being an outsider, cannot
as easily plot against the Pharaoh, whereas one of his own advisor's
- Some scholars
have argued that the Pharaoh was more sympathetic to Joseph because
he was one of the foreign kings called the Hyksos, who ruled over Egypt
from about 1675 – 1575 B.C. They may well have
been sympathetic to the Hebrews; and their overthrow may well have been
what led to the enslavement of the Hebrews. But the events occurring
here seem to be from the late eighteenth century (about 1740-1700) B.C.,
a little before that time.
- Neith was
the goddess associated with the primordial waters of creation, and later
with a seamstress who wove together creation.
3. Within the first seven years, Joseph and Asenath have two children Manasseh and Ephraim, who will become the founders of two half-tribes. Their names reflect forgetting the past and focusing on the fruitfulness now enjoyed. But Joseph will never be able to forget the past afflictions.